From John Hennessy:
It is both the most basic and the most complex and intriguing of historical documents: the list. Lists are sometimes surprisingly elusive, but hugely valuable. You’d think we’d have a list, for example, of all those men killed in the battles around Fredericksburg–after all, the most basic of honors to a fallen soldier is remembering his name. Until a few years ago we did not. Today, of the 15,000 men buried in the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg, more than 12,000 are unknown.
In and around Fredericksburg during the spring and summer of 1862, as many as 10,000 slaves passed into Union lines to freedom. While we know a fair amount about them collectively, we know almost nothing about them individually (except John Washington)–where they came from, where they ended up, the path taken by their lives in freedom, or, most basically, their names. The folks who have created and now manage the Fredericksburg-Stafford Trail to Freedom project have taken it upon themselves to change that. They have undertaken an intriguing project to name as many of that summer’s slaves-seeking-freedom as they can, and they ask your help in doing it. Stafford historian Al Conner is leading the effort.
It’s a formidable challenge. Slaves, while in slavery, had no legal names, and rarely do we have anything more than a nickname, a trade, or a value to start with. But still, compiling what we do know will invariably lead us to pierce the veil of anonymity and silence for at least a few–to learn something of their lives, something of what form their uncertain journey into freedom ultimately took.
Here are some examples of what we do know, taken from the claims filed by Confederate citizens for reimbursement for lost “property”–human beings–in the National Archives.All use the same language to describe the escape of the slaves: that they “were abducted and enticed away & harbored by persons acting under the authority of the United States Government & engaged in the Military Service thereof, the enemy of the said Confederate States.” For most of these slaves, this is often the only time they appear in their historical record.